Looking at the unwritten rules of advertising

Wednesday, December 22, 2004 at 1:00am

A teacher and his student sat down to tea. The teacher poured the tea into his student's cup and, even after it was full, continued to pour the tea as it spilled over the cup, filled the saucer, ran onto the table and then to the floor.

At last the student said, "You must stop pouring tea."

To this the teacher replied, "The same is true with you. If you are to learn what I have to teach, you must empty out the contents of your memory. You must practice the art of forgetting."

"Forgettery" is invaluable to the process of developing advertising and marketing strategies.

Without the ability to forget, our minds remain cluttered with ready-made answers, and we are not motivated to ask questions that lead to fresh, new ideas.

It seems there are unwritten rules that many advertisers abide by. One of those rules is that advertising must look and sound like advertising.

Much of the advertising we see and hear every day looks and sounds alike. Many times, if you study an advertisement, you will find that the ad in question is a "knock-off" of another ad. Often times inexperienced advertisers will appropriate an idea that worked well for someone else and expect the same results.

Take "got milk?", for example. How many advertisers have since put a word after "got" in their ads in an effort to create a sense of urgency about their product or service? Unfortunately for the copy-cats, motivating people to stock up on your product is not as simple as just asking them if they have it.

The creators of the campaign learned that people wouldn't buy more milk if you simply showed them milk. But, give them a mouthful of chocolate cake and a refrigerator full of empty milk cartons and watch them lose their mind. Then, ask the question and watch the sales curve rise.

The key to the campaign's success was not the question; it's the idea of what life would be like without the product.

The copy-cat advertisers would have done well to forget they ever saw the "got milk?" ads. But they couldn't. The idea was too powerful. Powerful, because it was original. And, you can't be original using someone else's idea.

You have a choice: Forget about what everyone else is doing and find the freshest, most unique way to tell your story.

Or you can choose to forget you ever read this. It's your call.

Nathan Fleming is the Creative Director at Red Pepper Inc., an advertising, marketing and branding firm. Review Seeds of the Past at redpepperinc.com/resources.

Filed under: City Business